The promise of truly sustainable design will soon be within reach; But it’s not about the points…It’s about the performance.

In a remarkably short time, the LEED rating system has become a widely accepted industry standard for assessing the “sustainability” of both new construction and renovation. Design firms tout the number of their staff with LEED credentials or how many LEED certified projects they have produced. Real estate brokers use the LEED badge to attract prospective tenants and are sometimes able to extract a premium for the presumed benefits that LEED offers. Owners are led to believe that a LEED rating will lower their total cost of energy, saving money over the long term. This is all well and good, as it serves the useful purpose of advancing the cause of environmentally responsible design. However, a LEED rating — even Platinum — is no guarantee that a project will be any more efficient than a conventional design. In fact, the actual performance of LEED-rated projects often falls far short of expectations.  

This should come as no surprise. A walk through the LEED checklist shows that many of the criteria used have scant relationship to what it actually costs to construct or maintain a building over its useful life. Some offer ancillary rather than direct benefits that are relatively short-lived (such as “Recycling Construction Waste”…why not focus on avoiding waste in the first place?). Others are so general as to defy objective measurement (such as “Maximize Open Space”…which might be best achieved by building nothing at all!). Still others could be categorized as “feel good” measures that have no bearing at all on actual building performance (“Community Connectivity” … which could mean just about anything).

Granted, many LEED criteria relate directly to specific targets, such as reducing water use by defined increments, ranging from 30% to 40%, or optimizing energy performance, ranging from 12% to 48%. However, since there are very few reliable metrics on what the standards for water or power consumption should be in the first place, this begs the question: “Compared to what?” If benchmarks are to be based on existing building stock, which would be logical, the bar will certainly be set too low, since most structures are decades old and hardly efficient by today’s standards. If benchmarks are based on what’s possible with currently available technology, it will have the effect of unfairly penalizing older buildings, which were built before the technology was invented. Standards based on averaging the two will certainly yield skewed results.

The economics of investing in sustainability can also be a bit murky. For example, a well-designed building that is only fifteen years old would not have been able to take advantage of the energy efficient MEP systems that have been brought to market since then, and so a relatively simple retrofit might yield big “savings” on paper. Nevertheless, that same very building, now upgraded to accommodate today’s ubiquitous IT systems, might actually use significantly more power, even with no increase in occupancy. On paper, the money would have been invested wisely, but overall energy consumption would actually have gone up both in absolute and per-square-foot terms.

The disconnect between what happens on paper and what happens in real life is beginning to get some long-overdue attention. According to a recent article in Building Design + Construction  magazine, only about half of the projected savings from installing sophisticated daylighting control systems is actually realized. The primary culprit was not the design, but the execution: “imperfect controls operation”. In the particular study cited, fully 20% of the projects actually showed zero improvement (but they all qualified for LEED points!).

An obvious step in the right direction would be to require thorough commissioning for all projects, and that building operators are sufficiently trained to make sure that the equipment continues to run properly over the long term. This is where LEED gets it right, by awarding credit for commissioning as well as measurement and verification. Then again, “Enhanced Commissioning” generates exactly the same number of LEED points as using “Regional Materials”, which arguably has little, if any, effect on cost or efficiency over the long term.

The truth is that design professionals know surprisingly little about how much energy or water a building “should” use. May variables come into play: location, climate, age of the structure, building footprint and massing, height, function, occupancy, materials used, and MEP systems are just a few factors that have a significant effect overall performance. Even if the focus is narrowed to comparing only building types of a very similar nature, such hospitals or hotels, the range of actual performance in a given sub-category can be quite large. For starters, there’s not even an agreed-upon standard methodology for collecting the basic data, much less comparing or analyzing it.

To get a handle on this question, several large cities, including New York and Boston, are now requiring all building owners to file annual reports of actual energy use, plus undergo an energy audit every five years.  The assumption is that buildings which are shown to be more energy efficient will be more attractive to commercial tenants and hence rise in value, and those which fall below the mean will be upgraded by their owners, if only to stay competitive. This strategy may or may not work depending upon the cost/benefit ratio of the required improvements, the length of the leases already in place, prevailing market conditions, and the building’s location, which can often trump all other factors combined. As currently written, these new regulations rely on self-reporting, which is susceptible to a certain amount of “gaming the system”, and so the data may be skewed. But it’s a start.

Because information is power, design professionals are missing a big bet. Currently, the professional service of architects stops at the end of the Construction Administration phase, before the building is actually occupied. Contract terms and compensation are based on delivering an end product (a building), and hence the focus is on construction cost, not operating cost. Once the ribbon is cut and the pictures are published, the architect’s work is pretty much done. There is no contractual requirement or financial incentive to factor in long-term value creation based on actual building performance, however performance might be defined. This is extremely short-sighted and exactly backwards. To be truly valuable to their clients, architects and engineers should think about the long term value of their work, especially since the up-front capital cost represents a very small portion — about 10 percent  — of the actual ownership cost over the long term. Think of it this way: if a client spends $10 million for the original building, that’s just a down payment.  Another $100 million will need to be invested over the structure’s useful life. Careful consideration about energy and maintenance costs up front can drive huge savings downstream; it’s one of the smartest investments that an owner can make, yet one that is almost always overlooked.

The trouble is that nobody talks to owners in straight terms about the actual implications of decision-making early in the design process. Once again, this should not be a surprise, for the simple reason that so little is known about all the variables and complexities involved. The problem is compounded by the fact that ownership can change hands several times over the lifetime of a building, which greatly alters incentives for long-term thinking. The LEED rating system is a step in the right direction, mostly because it serves to raise consciousness in general, but, it is a woefully inadequate yardstick.

For some, ignorance is bliss. For others, it creates opportunity. As the art and science of design and construction becomes ever more sophisticated, as both construction and long-term ownership costs increase, and as owners become more savvy about the true long-term nature of their investment and the benefits of cost-effective design, as natural resources become increasingly scarce, and as technology allows us to model a variety of performance metrics in advance, the stage has been set for a new kind of design professional —one who thinks of buildings not as static places, but as dynamic systems that can be fine tuned according to the changing needs of the occupants. When this kind of design thinking is applied across the board, the promise of truly sustainable design will be within reach. It’s not about the points…It’s about the performance.

Scott Simpson is a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council and a member of its executive board. He is a Richard Upjohn Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. With James P. Cramer, he co-authored the books How Firms Succeed and The Next Architect.